Laura, where are you from in the U.S.?
I was born in Lansing, Michigan but grew up Baltimore, Maryland (Catonsville) and I graduated from the University of Virginia. I also went to the honors program at the University of Maryland College Park in my first year of college. In the U.S., I have also lived in Burlington, Vermont; Charlottesville, Virginia; College Park, Maryland; Atlanta, Georgia; and Princeton, New Jersey. Now I live in Boulder, Colorado.
Where were you a PCV?
In Western Kenya-near Lake Victoria outside of Kisumu. It is a place known as Miranga, or Paw Akuche, about a 5 K hike in from Holo, and not far from Maseno.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I wanted to learn about other cultures and to travel and yes to help people but in more of an exchange and reciprocity way. I had just finished a master’s degree at the University of Vermont and I did not have obligations in terms of children or a relationship to keep me at home, so it seemed like an opportune time for an adventure.
The fact that the U.S. government paid for my ticket, monthly allowance, health care in country and readjustment allowance was also appealing.
I had applied to the School for International training (SIT in Brattleboro, Vermont) for a job managing a study abroad program in South England and was on the short list, but did not get the position, which I would probably have taken. Instead I went to Kenya and that experience changed my life.
How did that happen? How did the Peace Corps change your life?
The Peace Corps changed my path from economics as an undergrad to anthropology and Africa studies. Through living in Kenya, I became fascinated by questions about global development agendas and practices. I took my first anthropology class at Princeton with Gananath Obeyeskere and was immediately hooked because of the fascinating stories he told in class about doing anthropological research in Sri Lanka as well as historical research.
You then went back to East Africa, right?
Yes, I was drawn back to Kenya and Tanzania because of the friendships I formed and because the region fascinates me. As a Peace Crops teacher I was warmly welcomed at Bishop O’Koth Secondary School in the Luo village of Miranga. When I visited the home of students such as Caleb Ochieng or Beatrice or others they often slaughtered a kuku or (chicken) even though this was a huge sacrifice for their family. Guests and teachers are honored in a way that is hard to explain to an American audience. In 1997 and 1998, I returned to East Africa to work as a leader in Watamu and to oversee other Kenyan program for Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA) a summer exchange program founder by African-American minister James Robinson.
In 2000-2001 I conducted received support from the National Science Foundation and Fulbright-Hays to conduct field-based research on livelihood diversification and community-based conservation in Northern Tanzania’s Serengeti region.
How did this novel Lost Girl Found come about?
When I met the young South Sudanese men in the U.S. in 2001 I wanted to welcome them to Boulder and I felt that understood something about the cross-cultural shock they were experiencing. At first my connection was as an ally and volunteer; later I started to read more about their history and even teach about their refugee experience as the largest group of unaccompanied minors in the history of U.S. refugee resettlement. In my anthropology classes, I assigned books and films about their experience including God Grew Tired of US; Nuer Journeys; Nuer Lives, the Lost Boys of Sudan documentary and Dave Eggers’ What is the What.
These books and films largely focused on the boys and noted that only 89 girls were resettled while 4,000 boys were resettled. My students — especially the females — wanted to know “what happened to the girls” so I started to explore this and learned even more when young women began to arrive. I wrote several anthropological articles about the group and in collaboration with Sudanese. I knew I wanted to write a book eventually but not a traditional ethnography or anthropological description so I decided to collaborate with a professional writer.
What is your connection with Leah Bassoff, your co-author?
My original connection with Leah is through her parents who were volunteers with the Sudanese community especially the Lost Boys when they first came to Denver and then Boulder in 2001.
I met her at a conference on Sudanese women in Denver; when I learned that Leah also wanted to write a book about the Lost Girls I was drawn to working with her because she is talented writer and I believed that she could help shape the material in a way to make the story more compelling than a typical anthropology work and would appeal to a broader audience.
Leah also used to work as an editor at Penguin Press so her connections with the publishing/agent world in New York were a big contribution.
Have you read many Peace Corps writers?
I really like the book Monique and the Mango Rains because it depicted the close friendship that developed between Kris Holloway, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, and health worker Monique Dembele. I enjoyed the part where Kris gave Monique a ticket to visit her and her family in the United States and Monique thought she would have to hold on to the wings of the plane on her trip to the US.
I also read Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean by Kate Montgomery (Kenya 1996-97) and Hilary Liftin.
It is a book based on Peace Corps letters/journals about two former college roomates who kept in touch but followed different paths. I liked the insights though it was more the Volunteer Kate and her friend Hilary adapting to post-college life in Manhattan and less about the community in Kenya where Kate Montgomery .
I assigned both of them for my Regional Cultures of Africa class at the University of Colorado.
Q. What’s next for you? Another book?
My next book project will focus on the positive happening in Africa-in particular I will focus on African changemakers who are addressing the biggest challenges facing the continent. I like the idea of focusing on solutions and there are some amazing leaders I’d like to feature people such as Madelle Khanga of Cameroon, founder of Youths4Change and along withOmotola Akinsola she is also a founder of Jumpstart Academy. Youths4change is a youth led community based organization focused on transforming African youths into agents of socio-economic change. Madelle’s goal is to empower and mentor youths of all abilities across Africa, providing them with the opportunities, tools and networks to become ethical leaders and entrepreneurs. Then there is Betty Nakato of Uganda who has launched a project to make solar stoves available, and Priscilla Sempere of Malawi who is starting Pen Africa to make African stories available to Africa youth. Also there is Agnes Igoye of Uganda, founder of Huts for Peace to build community and work on peace and reconciliation in areas affected by Joseph Kony. Maggie Duncan Simbeye is working on designing less expensive Sanitary pads made of local materials for girls in Tanzania, part of DARE women’s foundation.
When you are not in Africa, what are you doing?
I live in Boulder Colorado and teach anthropology and direct of the Global Seminar Tanzania at the University of Colorado-Boulder. I am also the mother of two sons — Charlie and Simon. I also love to hike, do yoga, and play in the Colorado snow whether by snowshoeing skiing, hiking or snowboarding. We get a lot of snow in Colorado.
Thank you Laura for your time and your book and for all your great work in Africa.
Asante Sana (Kiswahile for “Thank you alot,” John, for letting the Peace Corps community know about Lost Girl Found.